Introduction to The Northampton State Hospital

When the Northampton State Hospital’s (NSH) doors opened in 1858, it was designed to reform the prison-like conditions of former psychiatric hospitals by fostering humane living conditions and providing individualized treatment for the patients living there. However, within 30 years the hospital’s living conditions began to rapidly decline. As a result of increased social anxieties surrounding people with disabilities, fears of arriving immigrants, and soldiers returning form WWI, a growing elderly population, and false conceptions of hysteria, the hospital’s admitted population swelled to 1,788 beds by 1920. Thousands of people were admitted regardless of their actual health simply because they didn’t fit social expectations. The hospital transformed from a landmark care facility to a warehouse for those isolated from society. By 1955, it housed over 2,500 patients in facilities designed to sustain 250. Following a class action lawsuit settlement in the 1970s, the last 6 patients were forcibly evicted from the hospital’s deteriorating campus in 1993. Today, signs of the hospital’s existence and the community that resided there have been effectively erased from Northampton’s public memory. [1]


Photo of symposium attendees walking to the former hospital grounds for the sound installation of Habeas Corpus, 2000 (Courtesy of Hedwig Schussler)

Northampton State Hospital’s history is not an isolated case. There were hundreds of psychiatric hospitals in the U.S. housing similar horrific conditions and some facilities are still in operation, forcing different types of psychiatric treatment. In order to make change and continue improving mental-health care and the conditions of these facilities, we have to bear witness to the past experiences of those institutionalized. The goal of this project is to elevate the experiences of patients and hospital inhabitants by contextualizing the complex history of NSH as well as critically analyzing current memorialization projects.

Content Warning:

This website will mention and show images detailing mental illness as well as forced institutionalization and psychiatric treatment.

Nomenclature Note: 

After careful consideration, this site will reference nomenclature specific to psychiatric practices in the late 19th-century and early 20th-century. While many of these terms are no longer in practice, I felt they were necessary to include when contextualizing the complex history of psychiatric care. To change my language to include terminology utilized today within the fields of Disability Studies and Psychology would effectively erase early stigma associated with mental illness and neuro-divergence.  It is important to bear witness and remember how people with perceived differences were treated and institutionalized.

Unidentified patient laying in his bed in the late 1960s (Courtesy of Historic Northampton)

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